TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Damien Harris couldn’t help himself. The junior running back was going past the University of Alabama football team’s media room when teammate Josh Jacobs was being interviewed, and popped in just in time to hear the question: “Can you throw the ball as well?”
“No, he can’t,” Harris bellowed from behind the row of cameras. “No, he can’t. No, he can’t. I’m here to tell you all, he can’t throw the ball.”
And just for good measure, he added another: “No, he can’t.”
Alas, someone seems to have finally found something that a Crimson Tide running back can’t do on the field this season, although it should be noted that Jacobs did play some quarterback in high school. He was more of a wildcat-style quarterback at Tulsa (Okla.) McLain, but still completed some passes.
“When you haven’t thrown a ball in a year and a half …” he said.
Harris gave a final “No” while heading for the door, but at this point no one should rule anything out when it comes to the Crimson Tide backfield. Through seven games, Alabama’s running game may be unparalleled in college football.
There’s talent, depth and versatility, plus an offensive line that’s really come together, making it the biggest strength of the offense. The No. 1 Crimson Tide have taken full advantage, with 2,118 rushing yards already.
The 302.6 average leads the SEC and is seventh nationally.
But the carries are just the beginning.
With Jacobs’ successful return from a foot injury, the group is finally at full strength for the first time, which is rare for a team in mid-October. In addition to Harris and junior Bo Scarbrough, there’s freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, plus junior Ronnie Clark scored his first career touchdown after coming back from two torn Achilles injuries.
That kind of mix wouldn’t work at a lot of places, with egos getting in the way and players fighting for touches.
Not with these guys. Even though they have very different personalities — Jimmy Fallon could have a field day with his superlatives segment on the “Tonight Show” with this bunch — everyone is contributing.
“Damien, uh, he’s goofy. He’s definitely goofy, always trying to make jokes. But he’s cool,” said Jacobs, then adding after Damien Harris left the room: “He’s kind of like a big brother, really.
“Damien would probably be class clown. Bo would probably be the hype man. Brian Robinson would be the sleeper. And Najee would probably be chill.”
Their differences and versatility translate to the field, utilizing both power and speed, with the blocking and receiving abilities to match.
For example, the coaches can insert Robinson as a fullback, use Jones as a change-of-pace back, line up someone wide or put two running backs in the backfield and really confuse the defense with what’s coming.
They can also call for something specific, like on the first play of the Arkansas game. The play was a sweep to the right, but Damien Harris was looking for a big hole on the cutback if the Razorbacks over-pursued. They did, and he went 75 yards for the touchdown.
We haven’t even gotten to arguably Alabama’s most dangerous player in the running game, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts.
You always hear about how offenses can get a defense on its heels by having balance between the ground game and the passing attack because they don’t know what’s coming. Well, Alabama can do something similar with its rushing alone, especially when factoring in the quarterback.
If a defense spies someone over the top, Hurts becomes a decoy. An interior linebacker clears out on a fake or to pick someone up in coverage, and Hurts has an easy first down. You get the idea.
Even with his sack yards, which count against rushing totals at the collegiate level, Hurts is second in team rushing with 557 yards on 79 attempts and 6 touchdowns.
Damien Harris just took over the team lead with his third 100-yard performance in four weeks, giving him 625 yards on 58 attempts and 9 touchdowns. Consequently, coach Nick Saban described him as being the Crimson Tide’s most consistent player on offense so far, with junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley second.
It really shows in his yards per carry average of 9.2.
Damien Harris doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the national leaders, but if so, he would be second behind only Stanford’s Bryce Love (10.27). Hurts does qualify and is 13th at 7.06. He was in the top 10 heading into last weekend’s game against Arkansas, when he had a season-low 41 rushing yards.
The only quarterback in the nation with a better average per carry is Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw at 7.72, but the Black Knights have only passed for 125 yards as a team all season. Hurts has thrown for 1,025 and taken off most fourth quarters.
“I’ve only played two full games this season,” Hurts said.
To put both averages into perspective, consider that the Alabama record for yards per carry is 6.5, set by Eddie Lacy in 2012 (1,322 yards on 204 attempts). That’s with a minimum of 200 attempts, while for 100 attempts the mark is 7.5 by Bobby Marlow in 1950 (882 yards, 118 attempts).
Want to take a guess who is second behind Marlow? It’s Damien Harris at 7.1, set last season (1,037 yards, 46 attempts).
It took me a while to come around. But Damien Harris is my favorite player on the team now. Shows up to play every game. So consistent.
— Alabama Crimson Tide (@crimsontidefam) October 14, 2017
Hurts is also closing in fast on the Alabama career record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Crimson Tide legend Harry Gilmer had 2,025 from 1944-47, while the 19-year-old Hurts already has 1,512.
In case you’re wondering, Gilmer averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
So one way or another, Alabama’s running game has been too much for most defenses to handle, especially in SEC play. It had 496 rushing yards at Vanderbilt, 365 against Ole Miss, 232 at Texas A&M and 308 versus Arkansas. That’s 1,401 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground, during which the Crimson Tide defense yielded 226 and one score.
It works out to a difference of nearly 300 yards per game, 350.2 to 56.5.
Nevertheless, the number to watch with Alabama’s running game is still 140. When the Crimson Tide have topped that in rushing yards, they’re 98-5 since 2008. They’ve reached that mark in 30 of the last 37 games, including all seven this season.
“That’s kind of what we take pride in, in whoever’s number’s called to being able to make the play,” Harris said. “We don’t care who makes it, as long as the play is made when it needs to be.”
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